Monday, February 16, 2015
ANTAGONISTS AND PROTAGONISTS
I recently received an email from emerging writer Ashley Gaumond who asked a couple of really good questions and I thought I’d answer them here as I’m sure there are others who visit here who might have the same questions.
1. Does a short prologue have to follow the standard rule for a scene (goal, conflict, disaster)?
My answer: Well, first of all, as a general rule, I don’t believe most prologs are useful or necessary. In general, I find that at least from beginning writers, most are created because they’ve been told they shouldn’t begin a novel with backstory and setup, and they’ve found an all-consuming need to provide… backstory and setup. If they call it a “prolog” they feel they’ve dodged the rule… That doesn’t mean that all prologs are bad, and occasionally we’ll see one that works and works well. But… that’s only occasionally. At least, in my experience. I think if you’ll look at the ones that get published you’ll often find that if they were left out, it didn’t affect the book adversely at all.
In Hooked, I talk about prologs a bit, and use the example of Larry Watson’s wonderful novel, Montana, 1948. It’s an absolute terrific book and he has a well-written prolog. But, I don’t think it was needed at all. Mostly what it did was… provide backstory/setup. Which did nothing for the book, to be honest. I think a lot of writers—especially newer writers—think they make a novel look like… a novel. They just kind of look “official” or something. Most are written in kind of a melodramatic style—the tone being—“Here’s a person who has undergone something really heavy and emerged sadder, yet wiser.” That kind of thing. Well, if you just read the novel sans the prolog and it’s written well, you’ll probably emerge from the experience feeling, “This was a person who underwent something really heavy and emerged sadder, yet wiser.” Without the nudge of a prolog… It just seems to me that prologs written for that reason are pretty much saying the author doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence to grasp that without the author pointing it out in the beginning.
As to your question, does it have to follow the standard rule for a scene, why would it? Most prologs aren’t scenes to begin with—they’re the internal monologue of the character or purportedly an outside judge of the events to come—and while some may contain a scene—which by necessity is a past event and therefore nearly tensionless—most are kind of a sermonette delivered to convince the reader that what they’re about to experience is… emotional and powerful. Personally, I kind of take offense to someone telling me how I’m supposed to react to the read. It feels like they're telling me I need to feel guilty if I don't experience what they told me I would after reading it.
And, some people love ‘em.
I’m just not one of those people. Convince me your novel is a big deal by the writing itself.
Regarding antagonists, can every character except for the POV character serve as an antagonist at some stage in a novel (even the "good" ones)? I see an antagonist simply as someone (not just a villain!) who challenges the protagonist at any given time.
My answer: First, I’d like to provide a definition for the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is simply the person through whose viewpoint you experience the story. The antagonist is simply the individual whose goals conflict with those of the protagonist’s. In my view, it’s a really big mistake to view either of these people in moral terms, i.e., the protagonist as “hero” and the antagonist as “villain.” Same applies to that dumb term, the “M.C”. It’s not the “main character” boobies—it’s the protagonist. This is simple stuff, kids… What happens when you do that is you tend to create one-dimensional, cardboard characters. Cartoons. Snidely Whiplash vs Snidely Doright. Yuch. I see these kinds of terms used often in writer’s advice and I really have a jones against them. When you begin to think of your characters as heroes and villains, you’ve just dumbed down the story immensely, in my opinion. You’ve almost completely destroyed the possibility of complex characters with that kind of mindset. In the worst instance, you’ve created a morality tale and, as Samuel Goldwyn said to a screenwriter who brought him a screenplay with a moral “message”: “Don’t send a message. Write a story. If you want to send a message, use Western Union. They’re much better at it. Just write a good story.” Perfectly said.
This is the kind of thinking that led years ago to that term “anti-hero.” If you think of protagonists simply as the person through whose viewpoint you experience the story, all that morality goes out the window as utter nonsense. The term “anti-hero” comes about as a subset of thinking in terms of heroes and villains, good vs evil. So, if a writer creates a protagonist who is seen in terms of good vs bad and they’re “bad” then they’re an antihero. Fairly infantile and limited thinking in literary terms. Just my opinion, but it’s the only one I have…
And, you can’t write a good story if it’s simply “good guy vs bad guy.” That’s just junk writing. That’s Snidely tying Nell to the railroad tracks and Dudley rescuing her… Again… yuch… Cartoon stuff for Saturday morning on the floor in your jammies… Junk food for the mind. Nothing to see here folks--move along...
Before I completely answer your question, Ashley, here’s what a story consists of.
1. A protagonist who has an experience that profoundly changes his/her life and therefore creates a story problem. (And the only place for a contemporary, publishable story to begin with. Probably not with a prolog that provides an outline of what's to come, attendant with a drum roll warning you as to the coming emotion you'll experience...)
2. His/her struggle to resolve that problem against increasing obstacles and opposition.
3. His/her resolution to that problem, containing both a win and a loss in that resolution.
Okay. Notice I made protagonist singular. That’s because it has to be one person. If there is more than one, the reader’s interest is hopelessly diffused. We see clearly one person. We don’t see two or more, at least not clearly. A book about capitalism vs communism won’t work if it’s about the U.S. army vs the Chinese Communist army. If, however, it’s about the commanding general of the U.S. army vs his counterpart of the Chinese army, then, yes, it can work. Or a private in each army vs his counterpart in the other. Whatever. When I see work that tries to do that, I know instantly that this writer has put the cart before the horse. He or she is thinking in terms of “theme.” And, for writers, theme is something that should be thought of only after the first draft is done. It’s at that point that we figure out what the story is about in terms of loglines, which is what a theme actually is, and then apply that to the rewrite. Check any issue of TV Digest for themes... Anything that doesn’t fit the theme upon rewrite needs to be exorcised. But, it’s not something a writer should even consider when writing initially. Just write a story.
And, the antagonist should be a single person as well. Same reason. We can’t visualize multiple people nearly as well as we can an individual. Does that mean there can’t be others who oppose the protagonist? Not at all. There can be many, many people who provide opposition… and there probably should be. But… they’re not antagonists. They’re merely people who do antagonistic things.
Here’s the perfect example—the film Thelma & Louise. The protagonist is Thelma. Contrary to what some might think, she and Louise aren’t “co-protagonists.” It’s Thelma’s story. Louise is along for the ride and experiences many of the same things Thelma does, but it’s Thelma’s story, all the way. Louise, if you want to assign arch-types, is the “Older Mentor” type. She’s not really older—they’re the same age in the movie, but she’s the one with more experience. Her story is necessary but it’s subservient to Thelma’s.
Now. The antagonist. When I show this movie, I usually ask the audience who they think the antagonist is. Very few get this right and that’s because largely they haven’t learned to think of story with the writer’s eye. The usual answer I get is her husband Darryl. Well, Darryl ain’t the antagonist. He does antagonistic things, but he just plain ain’t the antagonist. The second-most-common answer is Harlan, the would-be rapist who Louise shoots and kills. Again, not. The antagonist is Hal the cop. Darryl is Snidely Whiplash. So is Harlan. As are most of the other men in the story. Just a bunch of guys who do antagonistic things but aren’t the antagonist.
Look at the definition of the antagonist. He’s the individual whose goals conflict with those of the protagonist. Which is exactly what Hal does. Thelma wants to escape—Hal wants to catch her. Nothing moral in this. In fact, Hal is the nicest guy in the entire story. He only wants to catch Thelma to save her—first, from being charged falsely in Harlan’s murder and next to save her life. If Callie Khouri (the screenwriter) had thought in terms of “heroes and villains” she probably would have come up with what my wife Mary calls a “chasey-fighty movie” and gone direct to video if it would have been made at all. It’s because Khouri doesn’t think in those terms, but with the correct definitions of protagonist and antagonists. Her protagonist has a problem and her antagonist wants to thwart her resolution of that problem. It’s that simple. And, yet, creating characters under that definition leads to incredibly complex characters and situations.
And, yes, there are all kinds of characters in the story who do bad things to Thelma. But, only one person is above and beyond all others as the antagonist. The other characters—Darryl, Harlan, the truck driver, the state cop, et al—all do things to thwart Thelma but they are all limited in their opposition. Hal is the one who remains steadfast during the entire story to thwart Thelma’s goal—escape. And, he also satisfies the dimensions of a great antagonist—he is very, very powerful. He's very smart, has years of experience in catching criminals, has almost unlimited resources—state police, FBI, helicopters, dozens if not hundreds of pursuit vehicles, many, many guns, communication abilities—it goes on and on. The strength of a novel depends on the strength of the antagonist. You should write that down. I’ll repeat it: The strength of a novel depends on the strength of the antagonist. There are lots of writing “rules” that aren’t always necessary, but that’s one that really always holds true. Think of classics like The Silence of the Lambs. One of the most powerful antagonists in literary history. Think of Cape Fear. Personally, I’d spend far more time on the antagonist than even the protagonist. And, I’d always make that an individual. And, supply lots of other characters who also do antagonistical things to the protagonist. They’re allowed to have helpers and should have many of those.
So, Ashley, the antagonist is not “someone (not just a villain!) who challenges the protagonist at any given time.” It’s the individual who provides a constant obstacle to the protagonist all of the time on an up close-and-personal level.
So, please don’t think of these folks as “heroes and villains.” That’s kind of a good path to self-publication as the only avenue to seeing your book in print…
Hope that helps!